I Didn't Want To But I Did
June 18, 2012 5:51 AM   Subscribe

[Denis Wood wrote] a crazy dissertation. It’s about maps, mental maps, getting kicked off a bus, psychogeography, single element veridicality analysis, Europe, cartography, Kevin Lynch, passed-out subjects, Peter Gould, psychogeomorphology, the Shirelles, and the invention of “Environmental a” – a language for mapping. Among other things. It is driving the wrong way down the one-way-street of academia.
posted by barnacles (21 comments total) 76 users marked this as a favorite
Oh my god, this is already amazing I'm not not even through the front matter.
posted by Sokka shot first at 6:02 AM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you can separate the author from his work, you will be greatly rewarded in reading this dissertation. The first third is a semi-rambling account of his thoughts behind mental mapping, done in a philosophical and interesting way. The middle third is a riveting (really!) account of a bus ride through Europe in July 1970 with a group of 30 bored teenagers that reads more like a novel than dissertation. And the final third ties it all together, including a remarkable bit where he unites semi-psychological assessments of various travel styles with mental mapping styles with the seating arrangement that the student travellers gelled into over a month of bus travel. And it's basically all tied together with chapter front-quotes taken from pulp crime novels.

A remarkable work, and there's a lot in there for people from many disciplines to think from.
posted by barnacles at 6:07 AM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I started reading this last week after it was posted on Boing Boing. Wonderfully engaging. I'm not a fast reader so it will take me a while, but its my summer project.
posted by dry white toast at 6:38 AM on June 18, 2012

Neat! Is this poetic quackery, or are there useful insights in here?
posted by painquale at 7:30 AM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

painquale, I have to answer that with a long quotation from the last two pages of chapter 7 (207-208), because to me they were such a great and human response to the doing of science and to the stifling effect of most social science grad programs on those folks who are trying to go through them.

It's long (the previous 9 pages are all about the first day of their trip), but it's so good (and all emphasis mine).
You might ask me why I go into such detail about a single day on the tour.

Because for one thing the charged atmosphere made each detail stand out, the way things stand out in your mind when you learn someone close to you has died. Time seems to slow down and give you time to absorb and memorize each little thing, like what you were wearing and where you stood when you first heard the news, and the color of the sunlight on the drapes and the sounds of traffic on the street outside. This first complete day in London was like that. Maybe I was holding tny own private wake for the project, watching non-cooperation compound inabilities to maintain schedules. Maybe I was mourning the death of my anticipations and expectations, cleaning out the old unfounded to make way for the day by day realities of seeing a big hunk of time and space in under a month. The kids were all on edge too, maybe for some of the same reasons. Maybe because they were looking each other over too carefully. Maybe because they were tired and overstimulated.

Another answer is that I didn't go into detail at all. I remember that tour block by block, sales pitch by sales pitch, bite by bite, crowd by crowd. I remember every bill I changed and each word of the native guide. I remember the liquidity of the sun and the color of the hairs on my arm as I stood waiting in the Tower for the group to reappear, watching the fat black ravens, looking at French nuns in their winged head gear, listening to the voices of the little children. I remember the softness of the air off the Thames and the sounds of jack hammers across the river and the feel of the grass beneath my feet. I retnetnber the sweat, under my artnS and in my crotch and between my toes, that hot sticky feeling of feet doing too much with too little air. I remember the soggy ham moving toward my mouth on a heavy fork with one bent tyne and the sound of the coffee pouring into the cup and the reflection of the ceiling lights in its sinful blackness. I remember the rough texture of the blankets as I got into bed and the tightness of the muscles in my upper back and the tears on my cheeks as I thought of home and Ingrid and Homer and wondered what I was doing here a thousand miles from nowhere with a bunch of people who cared for me the way they cared for yesterday's newspaper.

Another answer is that I'm sick of science with no blood, no life, all dry words and dry ideas on dry paper.

Hi. I'm a scientist. I make hypotheses. I collect data. I come to conclusions.

I wear a shiny black tie and a short-sleeved white shirt and when I come to work in my sterile office I hang my baggy jacket on the back of the door and park my emotions in the waste basket with my chewing gum.

No thanks. Not for me.

Not for the the emptiness of "data." What a word that is. What a lot of sweat and anger and frustration hides there. Data. My data are thirty-one kids, all real, all flesh and blood and eyebrows and rich skin and varied voices and emotions and attitudes and vitality and energy. Taylor and Janine and Watson and Nybia and Karl and Joy and Desmond and Lana and all the rest of them. you look at my data and you see long months of hard preparation and one sweaty nightmare wonder of a whirlwind tour through Europe. You look at my data and see Bob and me, tired and strong, on top of the world and beaten, smiling and grim. You look at my data and you see sweat, salty and uncomfortable. You look at my data ...

I will show you blood in a handful of data.

Read on, MacDuff.
posted by barnacles at 7:52 AM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mostly I can't help but wonder if the dissertation passed and, if it did, how impossible it would be in the decidedly unexperimental world of academia today.
posted by jb at 7:53 AM on June 18, 2012

a great and human response to the doing of science and to the stifling effect of most social science grad programs

There's (at least) two parts to the scientific enterprise.

First is the basic process of making systematic observations and then publishing them in a way that allows someone else to check your work, or at least critique your methods.

Second is answering the question, Why? Why these observations and not others? Why these methods? Why should I care?

The Why question can be asked and answered on a thousand different levels: statistical significance, research paradigms, technological advances, utilitarianism, politics, curiosity, beauty, metaphysics. Some of these academia handles better than others.

It looks like the interesting part of this is he's addressing "Why should I care about your observations?" on levels academia is often poor at answering.
posted by straight at 8:17 AM on June 18, 2012

I agree that those are some cool ruminations on methodology and on the experience of data-collection, barnacles. But what are the results of this methodology? I'm interested in whether someone who works in pictorial semantics or some related field would find anything in here that they could use in their work. People who rail out against the establishment and against yeoman's work might be laudable for their autonomy, but they also don't often develop theories worth taking seriously. "Environmental a": revolutionary or timecubical?

Mostly I can't help but wonder if the dissertation passed and, if it did, how impossible it would be in the decidedly unexperimental world of academia today.

I don't think this is something that is explicable only as a product of yesteryear. This sort of dissertation would have always been a hard sell.
posted by painquale at 8:30 AM on June 18, 2012

I've only started reading the questionnaire they sent to the teenagers but it is really pretty interesting. I don't want to see ulterior motives involved in wanting to take a busload of teenagers to europe but I can't help it.

it with them to the airport where we
would, in all innocence I say this, pick them up.

The 70s were such a different time. I don't know if jokes about picking up teenagers would fly anywhere these days.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:57 AM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Between this guy and William Bunge I'm really wishing I could go to school for geography.
posted by enn at 9:06 AM on June 18, 2012

According to some of the info in his biography, definitely not. On the other hand, it looks like his dissertation, or some version of it, was accepted.
posted by bibliowench at 9:07 AM on June 18, 2012

Hey, it worked for Mick Taussig.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:26 AM on June 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh god, don't read his biography if you want to enjoy reading his dissertation. Serious bummer there.

Secondly, his dissertation is available in ProQuest (aka UMI). It's not titled "I Don't Want to, But I Will" (it's got the formal title "The genesis of geographic knowledge: A real-time developmental study of adolescent images of novel environments (London, Rome and Paris)" instead) but if you search for the author and the university you'll easily find it. It's also 685 hefty pages, but they seem to be the same pages as what's listed out in the 'driving the wrong way' link, with the exception of the title page.
posted by librarylis at 9:32 AM on June 18, 2012

If you can separate the author from his work,
I wish I could separate the author from his em-dashes, ellipses and italics. Reading Denis Wood is like being personally elbow-poked in the ribs.
posted by migurski at 9:45 AM on June 18, 2012

barnacles, thanks for this link. Denis Wood's work is amazing - I've often used images from his unpublished Boylan Atlas, together with his 1998 TAL conversation with Ira Glass, to teach creative mapping techniques to landscape architecture students. The Boylan project is inspiring: idiosyncratic and experiential in the way that only -wandering-and-wondering- can create.

librarylis, I know what you mean about his biography - serious bummer indeed. And I must say, it's sad that Woods no longer teaches landscape architects. The field needs more experiential approaches like his.
posted by marlys at 10:10 AM on June 18, 2012

Ooh, I didn't realize this is the Boylan Heights map guy. Cool!
posted by painquale at 10:22 AM on June 18, 2012

The '70s were the best. It's all been downhill from there.
posted by Jestocost at 10:29 AM on June 18, 2012

his unpublished Boylan Atlas

marlys, the Boylan Heights Atlas was published a year or so back as Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas. Here's a nice review:

Reduced to its base elements, Everything Sings is 70 pages worth of maps of Boylan Heights, a neighborhood just outside of downtown Raleigh, North Carolina about one and one-half miles on a side. That doesn’t touch what Wood succeeds in doing with this text, however. Everything Sings is a book of maps like Batman is a prominent member of the Gotham neighborhood watch.

In his introduction, narrative-documentary darling Ira Glass boils it down to: “Wood is writing a novel where we never meet the main characters, but their stuff is everywhere.”

...My favorite series of maps comes late in Everything Sings. In one, property values are coded. In another, the number of times a property was mentioned in community newsletters is depicted. Taken together, they tell an eloquent tale of social influence as it compares to wealth...The enjoyment of Everything Sings is not just about the maps, however. Wood’s opening chapter, touched on above, is a brief but invigorating stroll through 20th century intellectualism. The texts paired with each map are a well-balanced mish-mash of history, commentary, poetry, and craft. Though the book lends itself to a casual flip-through, taking in the maps simply as individual pieces of art, Everything Sings is meant to be read.

I should mention Denis is a co-worker of mine; aside from incisively critiquing (if not outright re-inventing) modern geography, he pulls part-time hours at the book and music store where I work. It's been interesting watching him reinvent a position in his field after losing his university job and spending six years in prison for the indecent liberties conviction, which he doesn't shy away from mentioning on his bio page. Unlike migurski, I find Denis' writing beautifully sharp and highly readable, and the stylistic techniques he uses perfect for accomplishing the dismantling of bullshit academic authority. The field is much the better for his active presence. I understand if some folks can't get past the history (I'm sure he deals with that regularly), but even if you don't accept the years of prison and probation as punishment for what he did, his work stands on its own. It's undeniably brilliant stuff about (among many other things) the ways governments, militaries and geographical societies use maps to bolster specific ideologies.
posted by mediareport at 11:59 AM on June 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

mediareport, I am delighted to hear that the atlas has been published! Thanks for the info.

It's undeniably brilliant stuff about (among many other things) the ways governments, militaries and geographical societies use maps to bolster specific ideologies.

Related to this, I've found Wood's cartography to be a useful alternative to more power-soaked forms of mapping. He claims cartography as a personal and creative act - one as much sensory as rational, as much imaginative as strategic. In this way, it seems to me that he's really committed to expressing an embodied relationship to place.

That mapping in an embodied, experiential way is political - well, that's peculiar issue, isn't it? Wood doesn't shy from that conundrum - more power to him for it.
posted by marlys at 3:44 PM on June 18, 2012

It's sad when someone who doesn't want to do science feels compelled to go through the motions of doing science.
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:24 PM on June 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I haven't truly had the opportunity to 'read for fun' in the last four years, due to my choice to crank away at post-graduate education. My 'fun' reading is mostly spurtive birdwalking, in the form of MetaFilter and hyperlinks. In many ways, I've completely forgotten how to read altogether.

Couple that with extreme guilt whenever I'm attempting to read things that aren't what I think I should be reading, i.e., journal articles and things that serve the purpose of filling my brain with the things I think I need to be knowing right now. Things that are crucial, relevant, and most importantly, citable.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm 50 pages into his dissertation this afternoon, all in one sitting, with no breaks. It's fun. It's informative. For the first time in years I'm reading for both reasons, naturally, with real attention.

My brain has been pried open a bit today and it's great. Thanks!

Do you mind adding geography, psychogeography, and geosophers tags to this post? I had a heck of a time tracing this one back!

Break over, back to reading, whee!

posted by iamkimiam at 7:55 AM on June 24, 2012

« Older TorChat   |   Vacation Clips Without Context Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments